It comes as no great surprise that Nick Pink has decided to leave his role as chief executive of England Golf. He is off to run England Hockey - good luck to Nick and also to hockey. He is a good guy, but he never had a chance at England Golf, because he couldn’t make any real changes in an organisation which is crying out for change, because the context of his appointment was determined by those not wanting any type of radical shakeup.
Unfortunately, the problems have got worse, with participation continuing to fall and costs continuing to rise, there are big problems on the horizon for England Golf unless they confront them.
There are so many things wrong with England Golf, but it does have lots of opportunities to become, once again, a relevant and modern organisation. It is always difficult to know where to start, but I would like this article to be viewed as supporting information for my application to run England Golf for a fixed two year period. During this period, I would make swathes of changes and re-organise the administration of golf completely. I would refocus England Golf on the things that matter and the things that they are good at and I will withdraw England Golf from activities that they are not good at.
England Golf are controlled and run by their masters, the county unions. They are funded partially by affiliation fees and also by money they receive from sporting England and sometimes the R&A and Sport England.
The management of the game of golf is in a pickle. The latest Chief Executive of England Golf, Nick Pink has just decamped to run England Hockey. Golf is in a mess because the people responsible for running the game have not a clue as to how to increase the number of people playing, which is the single most important task that this body should be engaged in.
The main control behind England Golf is the R&A, Sport England and the county golf unions. The R&A and Sport England provide funding and the counties enjoy the grandeur. All three seem incapable of realising that more of the same will waste more resources and the numbers of registered golfers will continue to decrease dramatically. The role of Chief Executive would normally command quite a good salary, but if I could lay out the the following words as my pitch for the job, then I will do it without salary for two years - perhaps turkeys won’t vote for Christmas, but with an inexperienced eccentric in the White House, perhaps there is a chance.
The organisation needs to be split into three main areas and administered by three main committees:
Prestige National Events -
The Performance Committee
The Handicap Committee
Golf Creation -
The Golf Creation Committee
Prestige national events will be handled by a Performance Committee made up with golf experts and county union officials. The county unions can continue to run elegant and prestigious county events which will encourage elite golf and feed through to national elite squads, coaching and events. This will give England Golf the opportunity to churn out more high quality players so our country can be proud of producing huge numbers of highly talented and successful international golfers.
The Performance Committee will be extremely important and the current County set up is the perfect way for this to be delivered. I also think that the use of the events that are the most fun for county officials, so potentially this is a (pardon the dreadful phrase) win-win for all.
Handicapping and golf creation are linked and must work closely together. Many people don’t completely understand this, but if you wish to establish more affiliated golfers, then more of those that take up the game must be encouraged to gain a handicap. It must be made increasingly easy to achieve the aim of getting a handicap. This does not necessarily mean making handicaps higher, but making handicaps easier simpler, cheaper and more accessible. The current process is convoluted and almost designed to discourage new players. First let’s have a look at the golfers journey.
A Golfer’s Journey
Golfers do not just emerge playing off 12, but come to the game in a variety of ways. Some start young, others much later, but the journey is similar.
1. See golf on the television / express an interest in trying it out
2. Golf range, pitch and putt, short course, putting, etc.,
3. Helpful friends/family
4. Lessons - PGA professionals and others
5. Venture onto the golf course - mentored
6. Venture onto the golf course - alone (very scary)
7. Play more regularly
8. Play some informal competitions
9. Perhaps join a club or society
10. Get a handicap
11. Play more formal competitions
12. Club matches and competitions
13. County matches and competitions
14. Advanced golf & beyond (less than 0.5%)
New golfers are delicate and can be lost to the sport if they do not receive the necessary encouragement in their formative months and years. They are particularly likely to quit if as they integrate with other existing golfers at around stage 6-8. Meeting an impatient or insensitive golfer at the very time that they need encouragement and friendly assistance is one reason why some new, fledgling golfers turn away from the sport. Other reasons are cost, time and formality.
Once a new golfer gets a handicap they are immediately more robust and quickly join in with great world of golf. The key to keeping more new golfers in the sport is getting them to the stage where they can get a handicap and then easily maintain one.
As such, handicapping is a desperately important part of growing the game and must be treated as such. A golfer with a handicap will endure.
The R&A has just introduced a raft of changes to the handicapping system which will be implemented next year in conjunction with the USGA. I don’t agree with all of the changes but I am happy to let these bodies determine the way the sport is handicapped, providing that those seeking a handicap in the first two years can be treated gently. There is a genuine terror in many areas that the loosening of a handicap system will result in for more handicap cheats. The majority of people who want to take up golf just want to get a handicap so they can join in with the broad society of golfers and feel a part of the sport. This is usually in the interests of the long-term development of the sport and the lack of understanding by the current governing bodies is the main reason why registered golfers are declining in numbers.
Almost all member owned golf clubs are designed to retain golfers rather than make new ones. There are obvious exceptions, but if we are being honest almost all member owned golf clubs do not want beginners playing regularly on their courses.
The proprietary sector of golf is far bigger than the member owned sector. In England there are approximately 1000 member owned clubs and 1000 proprietary and clubs, but in addition there are another 500 golf ranges and golf centres. There are a further hundred or so adventure golf courses, pitch and putt courses and indoor golf centres. In order to fund itself, England Golf has chosen to tax each golfer via an affiliation fee if they have access to a golf course for the whole year. Previously, there was a two speed system with the members of a golf facility being the body that actually affiliated to England Golf and only those that choose to become affiliated had to pay the relevant fees.
At some point in the last decade, England Golf decided that any facility offering any type of annual membership was due to pay affiliation fees for everyone of those golfers. No date was set, it was just generally considered to have been agreed. Not by me it wasn’t, nor by anyone representing the proprietary sector. Unfortunately this crude grab for more affiliation fees has backfired horrifically. Golf centres, which do all of the heavy lifting in golf creation for England Golf, are now regularly accused of defrauding England Golf by not paying affiliation fees. All of the trust has gone between England Golf and the people involved in creating golfers at grassroots level. Surely it is time for a governing body to support the most vital work for the future of the sport - that of golf creation.
This may sound difficult, but in reality it is very easy: a golf club which creates no new golfers will have to pay an affiliation fee for each playing member of £20 per annum. His allows exclusive golf to thrive. Then to help develop the game, every golf facility creating 200 new golfers or more each year (and this will be audited) pays nothing towards England Golf for its affiliation. This is a massive incentive, it cuts red tape and it clearly defines the role of the governing body and those facilities that affiliate to it.
The general idea that beginner friendly centres are rewarded with lower, or no, affiliation fees is a winning formula. There will be many adjustments and tweaks to the details, but the principle of idea will work. Exclusive clubs and family golf centres can be united under a new England Golf, which everyone would be proud of.
This will give a huge saving to England Golf and at a stroke make it viable and relevant. It is bad news for those currently employed to create golfers at head office. Their roles will be largely redundant and a new guiding committee, full of experienced golf creation experts, would help to influence even more people to take up the sport. Those wishing to have a handicap can join in and comply with any club registered as an affiliated party. These clubs and affiliated parties can then dispense handicaps inexpensively and enjoy all the benefits that come from having lots of happy golfers in their clubhouses.
At present the organisation is not, despite a few exceptions, working well with the proprietary sector; you will see elsewhere evidence of the hectoring, bullying, virtual blackmailing of clubs that do not comply with audit procedures immediately. This crazy crusade is spearheaded by the finance director of England Golf, Simon Wilson, who likes to demand that all affiliation fees are paid in full, even for those sampling the game. Whether or not England Golf are entitled to collect from all annual members/season ticket holders is debatable at best. This has only recently been the assertion of England Golf - in the past, there was a two speed system, with golfers new to the sport able to play unencumbered by affiliation fees until they wanted to hold a handicap and play more formally.
This should have continued to be the case, but the flawed thinking in Woodhall Spa was that it will be easy to keep clobbering all new golfers for fees, which will help keep the great England Golf ship afloat, as it heads towards the rocks of irrelevance and insolvency. Sport England has cut back their funding for England Golf too. At last the government has realised that this funding is bad value for money, as participation in sport is a personal decision, ably led by golfing entrepreneurs and does not need central funding.
Sport England may itself need to be dismantled, which may not help my job application, but they serve little function, as can be seen by the general participation levels of many sports after the London Olympics. Sport England has tried hard to claim all sorts of measured ‘wins’ when it comes to participation levels, but despite moving goalposts on an industrial scale it has failed miserably.
Potential golfers are converted one by one by skilled golf specialists and PGA professionals - and a huge number of amateurs play a role in this journey too. A friendly set of people, an engaging pro, access to a practice area and course, encouragement, a non-absurd dress code, reasonable prices - all of these things contribute to an individual deciding to take up the sport. None of this comes from England Golf, no matter how many times their mission statement is tweaked, no matter how many brochures on the subject they send out. Richard Flint runs golf development for England Golf and is a nice man, who says all the right things, but he has been on duty during the most alarming drop in registered golfers. King Canute would do a better job in holding the tide back.
There are currently approximately 85 employees at England Golf. Once the ideas I have laid out above have been implemented, 50 fewer employees will be needed, perhaps less.
Woodhall Spa should be sold or rented out for the long term. It’s a great golf holiday destination but a hopeless location for a head office.
There should be five or six regional centres of excellence throughout England and at each of these, high-level elite golf training should be regularly available with each region competing against each other to drive up standards and develop a highly competitive edge. These regional centres would be highly desirable establishments and could be awarded to the right type of facility at no cost, providing that they made available both practice and course facilities so that the cost of providing elite coaching on a regional basis was very little. Such centres could also attract significant sponsorship and marketing opportunities which could make the whole process cash positive. National events would continue to be run in this much the same way that they are today, which allows these traditions that are so important to the counties to continue, but golf to develop for the 21st-century.
I would greatly appreciate it if you would send letters of support for my application to:
Nic Coward, Chairman, England Golf,
Woodhall Spa, middle of nowhere, Lincolnshire, England.